Matter of distinction: Attorney's record of service displays commitment to profession, community

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

It was an elementary school teacher who was the first to tell Michael Lee, partner at Lee & Correll in Southfield, that he would make a good lawyer. That teacher would be proud, indeed, to know that her former student is this year's co-recipient of the Oakland County Bar Association's Distinguished Service Award.

"I didn't know any lawyers, but I liked and trusted this teacher, so if that was what she thought, then I believed her," says Lee. "It is impossible to overestimate the effect that teachers can have on their students."

Lee has, in turn, become a mentor--if not a teacher--himself through his extensive service to the OCBA, the legal profession, and the greater community, all of which earned him the nomination for the Distinguished Service Award. An OCBA member since 2002, Lee was recognized for his work as chair of the organization's Membership Committee; under his leadership, the committee set a new record for 226 Sustaining Members, the most in OCBA history. He also served as co-chair of the 2011 Circuit Court Bench/Bar Conference, which explored the impact of social media technology on today's practice of law.

"In both roles, I had the benefit of Vice Chair Kirsten Gramzow and Co-chairs Judge (Lisa) Gorcyca and Judge (Elizabeth) Pezzetti," Lee says. "I also had the benefit of an outstanding team of committee members, all of whom worked hard and shined like true stars. The support that I received from the OCBA staff liaisons to those committees--Katie Tillinger and Jan Anson--was invaluable. Most of all, then President Jennifer Grieco was kind enough to give me the opportunity to take on both committees in the same year. The fact that Jennifer placed this level of trust in me during 'her year' was very moving for me, so I was determined to validate her vote of confidence and not let her down."

Lee's work with other organizations also contributed to his nomination. He is vice president of the Federal Bar Association, a member of the State Bar of Michigan Judicial Crossroads Task Force, and a member of the Presidential Diversity Advisory Committee. Lee is a former chair of the State Bar's Labor and Employment Law Section Council and a past president of the D. Augustus Straker Bar Association.

For the first time in OCBA history, a partner and attorney from the same firm have been named co-recipients of the Distinguished Service Award. Lee shares the honor with Syeda Davidson, whom he hired at Lee & Correll earlier this year. The two had served on the same Inn of Court team a couple of years earlier, and the young Davidson left a favorable impression on him.

"So when I had the opportunity to hire a new associate, I contacted her. Fortunately, she was interested and has been with firm since February. I had no idea she was as active as she is until I hired her. Of course, I was very impressed with that aspect. Syeda is just pure energy, and I think that quality is indispensible to a litigator."

Lee calls Davidson one of the most "fearless" young attorneys he has ever met.

"She will take on anyone, and I like that because, as a small firm, we are frequently going to be David, not Goliath. I think anyone can represent an 'overdog,' but it is not just anybody who can capably represent an underdog."

A graduate of Northwestern University, Lee went on to study law at the University of Texas Law School. He was a member of the class with the largest percentage of African-American students (10 percent) in the history of the law school.

"There is truly a different dynamic to having a critical mass of students of color in the classroom," says Lee. "It gave me a sense of a support network, which was important since I was 1200 miles from home, with no relatives even in the same time zone, let alone the state. I was so eager to do well that I studied until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, even on Friday and Saturday nights. But that was still easier than working," he recalls.

In 1986, Lee was hired by Hiller, Larky, and Hoekenga and became a partner three years later when the firm evolved to Hoekenga, Amberg, McNenly, Zuschlag, Firestone, and Lee. In 2004, he started Lee & Clark, which became Lee & Correll in 2007.

Throughout his career Lee has practiced traditional labor law on the union side and employment discrimination law. He has done civil rights litigation and commercial real estate litigation.

Lee had known his current partner Ray Correll for more than a decade through his former office partner, the late Richard Beemer.

"Richard did criminal defense work, so we would share clients who might have an employment issue as well as a criminal issue. We would coordinate representation in both areas. I came to trust Richard implicitly, and we obtained the optimum results for our clients. When Ray began practicing with Richard, I worked with him over time and developed the same type of relationship. When Richard passed, Ray and I talked and decided to become office partners."

When asked which accomplishment led to his greatest source of pride, Lee will tell you it was the 2001 amicus brief he wrote on behalf of the Michigan Education Association in support of the University of Michigan's admission process. Those cases, which came to be known as the "Gratz" and "Grutter" cases, had challenged the University's use of race in its admissions process.

The community service project that occupies Lee's heart and mind these days in the Urban League of Detroit and Southeast Michigan, commonly known as the Detroit Urban League. This important organization provides jobs for senior citizens, food care programs for adults and children, parenting classes for young mothers and fathers, smoking prevention/cessation classes for teens and adults, and child nutrition services. As the current vice chair of the Board of Directors, and former chairman of the Board, Lee is pleased that the Urban League provides what he calls "face-to-face," "on-the-ground" services, not just pass-through monetary contributions.

"Moreover, I personally owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Urban League. My parents, like so many other African-Americans, were part of the great migration from the South in the 1930s and 1940s--my father from Arkansas and my mother from Alabama. The Urban League affiliate in Detroit helped my father get his first job in Michigan before I was even born," says Lee. "The greatness of the Urban League lies in the fact that its work can positively impact the community for generations, not just today."

Lee went on to serve on the Board of Trustees of the National Urban League from 2004-10. In that role he found himself in auspicious company: other trustees included the Secretaries of Labor and Transportation from the Clinton administration, the president of Shell Oil, the Executive Vice President of the National Football League, the president of Nationwide Insurance, the chairman of Marriott Hotels, and the CEO of Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

"It was truly a post-graduate 'education' watching these leaders in action and picking their brains during breaks in the board meetings. It was also amazing how down to earth and personable they all were. There was nothing in it for them to be kind to me; nevertheless they were very kind and very friendly."

Despite wearing so many "hats" in his professional life, Lee makes time to pursue some favorite leisure pastimes. A bit of a movie buff, he admits to subscribing to a multitude of movie and sports channels. An avid reader, he is from the generation of young people who were inspired by President John F. Kennedy's publicized penchant for reading 13 daily newspapers.

"Now he probably did not actually do that--he probably had someone clipping selected articles for his review--but I have always read as many newspapers as I could get my hands on. I also like mysteries and courtroom novels," says Lee.

Lee also has hopes for the future expansion of his practice and the size of his firm.

"I don't want a mega-firm with hundreds of lawyers. But I would, ultimately, like to be in the 15-20-lawyer range. That would give me the financial cushion to take on even more pro bono civil rights work in other areas."

Born and raised in the city of Detroit, Michael Lee continues to reside in the city. And his impact on the city he loves continues to be appreciated.

"I am committed to its recovery," he says without reservation. "It is through volunteer community work that people's lives are made better. Why shouldn't those of us upon whom good fortune has shined do something for others?"

Published: Tue, Aug 2, 2011